Why human-centered design is a natural companion to Agile development – JAXenter

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While agile development continues to rise in popularity, development teams are learning that the once-touted approach of “moving fast and breaking things” doesn’t work. Agile in a vacuum can lead a team down the wrong path and quickly. By pairing agile development with human-centered design, teams can gather end-user feedback and validation as they bring their product to market.

Most are familiar at this point with Agile methodology, an approach which advocates for cross-functional collaboration and iterative development. Less popular in development circles is the concept of human-centered design.

Human-centered design meets development

Simply put, human-centered design is an approach that brings end-users in on product development early and often to provide continual validation. Instead of waiting to get to market to find out that a feature isn’t intuitive, human-centered design mitigates that risk and shortens that feedback loop.

I first encountered this approach working at a consulting firm that was working to conceptualize, design, and develop different digital solutions to help users better manage their health. If you know that your end-user is already suffering from an illness, it is even more essential that the solution you are putting in their hands is easy-to-use, intuitive, and encourages continued use.

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What does this look like in practice? It likely means conducting exploratory user research in the initial planning phase of the product life cycle. This feedback can start to inform the overall layout and requirements of your solution. As your development team starts to build out that structure, your team might start designing features and user stories to fit these requirements. At this stage, it could be helpful to start conducting more targeted interviews. Once you have a minimally-viable prototype (MVP) or feature, you can ask questions like:

  • What information here matters to you?
  • What would you expect the next screen to be?
  • How might this be better?

In his article, “Why Human-Centered Design Matters,” Dave Thomsen, VP of Product and Design at Wanderful Media, recommends you, “Ask participants to verbalize their thought process as they use it. Try not to correct the participant or defend your prototype and answer their questions with questions.” You can then channel this feedback into another iteration of that feature, and with each iteration, you gain end-user validation.

It might sound overwhelming. User research, user interviews, user testing. Who has time for that? Well, another way to frame it is, do you have time to bring something to market that could flop? Months of heads-down development could be made void if spent solving the wrong problem or solving the right problem in the wrong way. The upfront investment in human-centered design reduces the amount of rework that your development will need to do and creates a better product for users.

Aligning two key feedback loops

The first feedback loop we’ve been discussing is generated by asking end-users about their expectations, preferences, and impressions of a solution. This feedback should feed into improved requirements, user stories, design documents, etc. This documentation, which advocates for the end-user, lays out a clear path for development. Most of this feedback loop is likely to be managed by your team’s designers.

The second feedback loop is on the execution of the design, which requires collaboration across disciplines. Designers need to verify that developers have understood changes and the reason they need to be made. Testers need to work with developers and operations to ensure that test cases and test plans can be setup effectively and monitored. Product managers need to have visibility into the overall development and resolve potential conflicts. This cross-functional collaboration is at the heart of Agile development, and even newer trends like Behavior-Driven Development.

One challenge with this feedback loop is actually staying aligned as changes are being added and discussed. One way to combat this is with a peer review tool, like Collaborator from SmartBear, which can facilitate reviews of both code and documents. Your team can ensure that code changes reflect updated requirements and user stories, or that changes to your documentation have cross-functional signoff before being committed.

Bringing both of these feedback loops together requires significant project management. It’s important to plan your project timeline up front so you can avoid bottlenecks. Using a tool, like Atlassian’s Jira, can ensure that these different feedback loops and feature iterations don’t become blockers for parts of your team.

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Putting methodology into practice

I’ve often heard, “It’s not about doing agile, it’s about being agile.” Your team can run through the motions of sprints and standups, but the process won’t necessarily translate to better development. It’s more about embracing the spirit of the methodology.

The same is true for human-centered design. Simply conducting interviews and soliciting user testing isn’t enough. Your whole team and organization needs to be onboard and take the core philosophy to heart in order to turn feedback into a better product.

By joining together these two philosophies, your team will keep its end-user central across your development and keep your team executing in harmony, generating human-validated solutions one iteration after the next.


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